Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
The Death of Madge Wildfire
By Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832)
 
From The Heart of Mid-Lothian

JUST as the clowns left the place, and as Mr. Archibald returned with some fair water, a crowd of boys and girls, and some of the lower rabble of more mature age, came up from the place of execution, grouping themselves with many a yell of delight around a tall female fantastically dressed, who was dancing, leaping, and bounding in the midst of them. A horrible recollection pressed on Jeanie as she looked on this unfortunate creature; and the reminiscence was mutual, for by a sudden exertion of great strength and agility, Madge Wildfire broke out of the noisy circle of tormentors who surrounded her, and, clinging fast to the door of the calash, uttered, in a sound betwixt laughter and screaming, “Eh, d’ye ken, Jeanie Deans, they hae hangit our mother?” Then suddenly changing her tone to that of the most piteous entreaty, “Oh, gar them let me gang to cut her down!—let me but cut her down!—she is my mother, if she was waur than the deil, and she’ll be nae mair kenspeckle than half-hangit Maggie Dickson, that cried saut mony a day after she had been hangit; her voice was roupit and hoarse, and her neck was a wee agee, or ye wad hae ken’d nae odds on her frae ony other saut-wife.”
  1
  Mr. Archibald, embarrassed by the mad woman’s clinging to the carriage, and detaining around them her noisy and mischievous attendants, was all this while looking out for a constable or beadle, to whom he might commit the unfortunate creature. But seeing no such person of authority, he endeavoured to loosen her hold from the carriage, that they might escape from her by driving on. This, however, could hardly be achieved without some degree of violence; Madge held fast, and renewed her frantic entreaties to be permitted to cut down her mother. “It was but a tenpenny tow lost,” she said, “and what was that to a woman’s life?” There came up, however, a parcel of savage-looking fellows, butchers and graziers chiefly, among whose cattle there had been of late a very general and fatal distemper, which their wisdom imputed to witchcraft. They laid violent hands on Madge, and tore her from the carriage, exclaiming—“What, doest stop folk o’ king’s highway? Hast no done mischief enow already, wi’ thy murders and thy witcherings?”  2
  “O Jeanie Deans—Jeanie Deans!” exclaimed the poor maniac, “save my mother, and I will take ye to the Interpreter’s house again,—and I will teach ye a’ my bonnie sangs,—and I will tell ye what came o’ the”—— The rest of her entreaties were drowned in the shouts of the rabble.  3
  “Save her, for God’s sake!—save her from those people!” exclaimed Jeanie to Archibald.  4
  “She is mad, but quite innocent; she is mad, gentlemen,” said Archibald; “do not use her ill, take her before the mayor.”  5
  “Ay, ay, we’se hae care enow on her,” answered one of the fellows; “gang thou thy gate, man, and mind thine own matters.”  6
  “He’s a Scot by his tongue,” said another; “and an he will come out o’ his whirligig there, I’se gie him his tartan plaid fu’ o’ broken banes.”  7
  It was clear nothing could be done to rescue Madge; and Archibald, who was a man of humanity, could only bid the postilions hurry on to Carlisle, that he might obtain some assistance to the unfortunate woman. As they drove off, they heard the hoarse roar with which the mob preface acts of riot or cruelty, yet even above that deep and dire note, they could discern the screams of the unfortunate victim. They were soon out of hearing of the cries, but had no sooner entered the streets of Carlisle, than Archibald, at Jeanie’s earnest and urgent entreaty, went to a magistrate, to state the cruelty which was likely to be exercised on this unhappy creature.  8
  In about an hour and a half he returned, and reported to Jeanie, that the magistrate had very readily gone in person, with some assistance, to the rescue of the unfortunate woman, and that he had himself accompanied him; that when they came to the muddy pool, in which the mob were ducking her, according to their favourite mode of punishment, the magistrate succeeded in rescuing her from their hands, but in a state of insensibility, owing to the cruel treatment which she had received. He added, that he had seen her carried to the workhouse, and understood that she had been brought to herself, and was expected to do well.  9
  This last averment was a slight alteration in point of fact, for Madge Wildfire was not expected to survive the treatment she had received; but Jeanie seemed so much agitated, that Mr. Archibald did not think it prudent to tell her the worst at once. Indeed, she appeared so fluttered and disordered by this alarming accident, that, although it had been their intention to proceed to Longtown that evening, her companions judged it most advisable to pass the night at Carlisle.  10
  This was particularly agreeable to Jeanie, who resolved, if possible, to procure an interview with Madge Wildfire. Connecting some of her wild flights with the narrative of George Staunton, she was unwilling to omit the opportunity of extracting from her, if possible, some information concerning the fate of that unfortunate infant which had cost her sister so dear. Her acquaintance with the disordered state of poor Madge’s mind did not permit her to cherish much hope that she could acquire from her any useful intelligence; but then, since Madge’s mother had suffered her deserts, and was silent for ever, it was her only chance of obtaining any kind of information, and she was loath to lose the opportunity.  11
  She coloured her wish to Mr. Archibald by saying that she had seen Madge formerly, and wished to know, as a matter of humanity, how she was attended to under her present misfortunes. That complaisant person immediately went to the workhouse, or hospital, in which he had seen the sufferer lodged, and brought back for reply, that the medical attendants positively forbade her seeing any one. When the application for admittance was repeated next day, Mr. Archibald was informed that she had been very quiet and composed, insomuch that the clergyman who acted as chaplain to the establishment thought it expedient to read prayers beside her bed, but that her wandering fit of mind had returned soon after his departure; however, her countrywoman might see her if she chose it. She was not expected to live above an hour or two.  12
  Jeanie had no sooner received this information than she hastened to the hospital, her companions attending her. They found the dying person in a large ward, where there were ten beds, of which the patient’s was the only one occupied.  13
  Madge was singing when they entered—singing her own wild snatches of songs and obsolete airs, with a voice no longer overstrained by false spirits, but softened, saddened, and subdued by bodily exhaustion. She was still insane, but was no longer able to express her wandering ideas in the wild notes of her former state of exalted imagination. There was death in the plaintive tones of her voice, which yet, in this moderated and melancholy mood, had something of the lulling sound with which a mother sings her infant asleep. As Jeanie entered she heard first the air, and then a part of the chorus and words, of what had been, perhaps, the song of a jolly harvest-home:

        Our work is over—over now,
The goodman wipes his weary brow,
The last long wain wends slow away,
And we are free to sport and play.
  
The night comes on when sets the sun,
And labour ends when day is done;
When Autumn’s gone, and Winter’s come,
We hold our jovial harvest-home.
  14
 
  Jeanie advanced to the bedside when the strain was finished, and addressed Madge by her name. But it produced no symptoms of recollection. On the contrary, the patient, like one provoked by interruption, changed her posture, and called out with an impatient tone, “Nurse—nurse, turn my face to the wa’, that I may never answer to that name ony mair, and never see mair of a wicked world.”  15
  The attendant on the hospital arranged her in her bed as she desired, with her face to the wall and her back to the light. So soon as she was quiet in this new position, she began again to sing in the same low and modulated strains, as if she was recovering the state of abstraction which the interruption of her visitants had disturbed. The strain, however, was different, and rather resembled the music of the Methodist hymns, though the measure of the song was similar to that of the former:

        When the fight of grace is fought—
When the marriage vest is wrought—
When Faith hath chased cold Doubt away,
And Hope but sickens at delay—
  
When Charity, imprison’d here,
Longs for a more expanded sphere,
Doff thy robes of sin and clay;
Christian, rise, and come away,
  16
 
  The strain was solemn and affecting, sustained as it was by the pathetic warble of a voice which had naturally been a fine one, and which weakness, if it diminished its power, had improved in softness. Archibald, though a follower of the court, and a pococurante by profession, was confused, if not affected; the dairy-maid blubbered; and Jeanie felt the tears rise spontaneously to her eyes. Even the nurse, accustomed to all modes in which the spirit can pass, seemed considerably moved.  17
  The patient was evidently growing weaker, as was intimated by an apparent difficulty of breathing, which seized her from time to time, and by the utterance of low, listless moans, intimating that nature was succumbing in the last conflict. But the spirit of melody, which must originally have so strongly possessed this unfortunate young woman, seemed, at every interval of ease, to triumph over her pain and weakness. And it was remarkable that there could always be traced in her songs something appropriate, though perhaps only obliquely or collaterally so, to her present situation. Her next seemed the fragment of some old ballad:

        Cauld is my bed, Lord Archibald,
  And sad my sleep of sorrow;
But thine sall be as sad and cauld,
  My fause true-love! to-morrow.
  
And weep ye not, my maidens free,
  Though death your mistress borrow;
For he for whom I die to-day
  Shall die for me to-morrow.
  18
 
  Again she changed the tune to one wilder, less monotonous, and less regular. But of the words, only a fragment or two could be collected by those who listened to this singular scene:

        Proud Maisie is in the wood,
  Walking so early;
Sweet Robin sits on the bush,
  Singing so rarely.
  
“Tell me, thou bonnie bird,
  When shall I marry me?”
“When six braw gentlemen
  Kirkward shall carry ye.”
*        *        *        *        *
“Who makes the bridal bed,
  Birdie, say truly?”—
“The gray-headed sexton,
  That delves the grave duly.
*        *        *        *        *
The glow-worm o’er grave and stone
  Shall light thee steady;
The owl from the steeple sing,
  Welcome, proud lady.”
  19
 
  Her voice died away with the last notes, and she fell into a slumber, from which the experienced attendant assured them that she never would awake at all, or only in the death agony.  20
  The nurse’s prophecy proved true. The poor maniac parted with existence without again uttering a sound of any kind. But our travellers did not witness this catastrophe. They left the hospital as soon as Jeanie had satisfied herself that no elucidation of her sister’s misfortunes was to be hoped from the dying person.  21
 
 
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